May 25th, 2020
You may be aware that last week was Mental Health Awareness week in the UK and the theme for this year is kindness. Kindness is obviously not something we just want to look at in one particular week but something to encourage in our children throughout their lives.
Dictionaries define kindness as the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate and caring. I would also include empathy, since the ability to recognise how others feel is a prerequisite to caring, concern and consideration. These are qualities that are not necessarily innate in a person. Parents can encourage kindness in children. We can build the skill of empathy.
So why do we need to encourage kindness and empathy? Well one of the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that human beings are inherently social creatures. We need to connect to each other. We rely on cooperation to survive and thrive. There is much research which shows that cooperation, rather than competition, produces better strategies faster to deal with problems. It will be interesting to see what approaches affect the development of Covid-19 vaccines. There are many examples that have emerged from this health crisis of kindnesses from one person to another. I have loved the feeling of togetherness in my neighbourhood as people have greeted and looked out for one another. Many apps and online groups have sprung up offering to help those in need at this time and there have been many heart-warming stories of support.
We know that mental health is very much improved by small acts of kindness or connections, whether as the recipient or the person doing that act of giving. Research shows that kindness is the antidote to stress and it can increase happiness and self-esteem. There is evidence that small acts of altruism improve our self-image, and our behaviour. There is also evidence that kindness can improve our physical health and academic performance as well as prolonging our lives!
We want our children to learn to be kind of course so that they will enjoy good and meaningful friendships. By encouraging kindness in our children we can reduce the epidemic of bullying that is causing so much anxiety and depression in our kids. We also hope for a future where adults brought up on a diet of considering other’s perspectives may actually be able to solve the world’s problems better than those focused primarily on their own needs.
So how do we encourage kindness in our children? Michele Borba, in her book ‘Unselfie’, addresses just this and she offers hope when she says that “Kindness is contagious”. In her research she found that when children practiced simple acts of kindness it started a ‘kindness revolution’ in their community, changing behaviour and attitudes.
To teach children kindness the adults in their lives need to:
What this means is that adults need to demonstrate in their daily interactions with the children and others that they think about how the other thinks and feels. Don’t make this be something to beat yourself up about for not doing but tune in and notice the small kind things you do all the time like giving your upset child a hug. We do this on a daily basis in simple ways:
Let’s make kindness more contagious than Covid-19!
January 26th, 2020
Yesterday was Australia day. The 26th January is celebrated by many with barbecues and picnics and there is much talk of what it means to be Australian. In Sydney people flock to the harbour to watch a fly past and a ferry race. It looks like a joyful day. But appearances can be deceptive. It is not a joyful day for the first peoples of Australia for whom the 26th January is known as ‘invasion day’. That day marked the end of their free existence in close harmony with the land they loved and began a period of conflict and loss of culture.
This period began with an assumption. When British people arrived in Australia it was called ‘settlement’, not conquest, because there was a legal assumption that the land was unoccupied, that is the peoples who lived there were not recognised as people. Black people in many parts of the world have been assumed by whites to be ‘less than’; less intelligent, less cultured, less morally principled, less worthy. These assumptions deprive us of real connection with our fellow human beings. When we ditch our assumptions and get curious we find out about others. Inevitably we find we have more in common than we had thought and even something to learn from each other. In the recent Australian bush fires traditional methods of land management were shown to be particularly effective.
Closer to home perhaps we find ourselves making assumptions within our own families. We assume our children are blank slates for us to imprint upon, but they are born with their own personalities and develop their own ideas. We assume that as their parents our job is to control and to teach them, but they have much to teach us. We sometimes assume that their behaviour is a deliberate attempt to ‘get us’. This week I had a great conversation with Bonnie Harris for our podcast where she talked about the assumptions we make about our children’s behaviour that pushes our buttons and causes us to ‘lose it’. We often think it is their behaviour that makes us see red and react poorly. But in fact it is what we think about our children, and ourselves, that gives rise to the feelings that prompt our regrettable reactions. If my six year old refuses to get dressed and it’s 7.45am and we’re going to be late for school and work and I feel like I’ve tried everything but he WILL NOT cooperate, I might shout and threaten the cancellation of the promised outing to Legoland for his birthday…. If I assume that he should do what I ask, straightaway, and if he doesn’t it means he’s a bolshie, difficult child …and that I am an incompetent parent…then no wonder I feel powerless and react by trying to seize control through threats and punishments and maybe shaming talk! And we start the day with unpleasantness and we’re already exhausted before we get to school and work. And we’ve lost connection and maybe my words have chipped away at his self-esteem. And all of that came about because of my assumptions.
Let’s start with a new assumption. If things aren’t going well it means my child is having a problem with whatever I’ve asked him to do.
He is having a problem, not being a problem.
It may be simple: my six year old son gets distracted playing with his games. He doesn’t mean to defy me but he has different, six year old, priorities than mine. He has a hard time giving up on his play agenda and bending to my adult clock-dictated agenda. He struggles to curb his impulses because his higher brain which regulates emotions is undeveloped.
Or if we dig deeper it might be more complex: he might be feeling very controlled. It’s Friday and he’s already had four days of adults telling him what to do. After school he either goes to after school care or an organised activity and when he gets home it’s tea time and then reading practice and worksheets and bed. He doesn’t get time to play with his Lego and he doesn’t get any say in what happens.
We can hold on to our parenting skills and respond in ways we’ll be proud of if we ditch the assumptions and get curious. When our children are behaving in ways we don’t like let’s ask ourselves why. Sometimes it takes superhuman reserves of patience to be a parent, so forgive yourself if you do lose it but then ask why did that happen, apologise and repair the relationship.
I might speak to my six year old like this: “I’m sorry I shouted at you this morning when we were leaving the house. I said you were behaving like a baby and that wasn’t right. Nobody deserves to be shouted at or called names. I was feeling anxious about being late so I need to try and find some better ways for us to be ready on time. Now that I’m calm and thinking about it I guess you were feeling bossed around. You wanted to play your Lego and you don’t get much time to play your own games. I’m wondering what we can do about that. Do you have any ideas?
This kind of conversation restores connection. With older children you can ask them what they were feeling but they won’t always know or feel able to express themselves. It’s fine for the adult to take a guess at the child’s feelings and suggest it to them. But wait to see how they respond. You’ll know if you’ve accurately identified their feelings. That is how they develop both a vocabulary of emotions and the ability to apply the words to their experience. It is how they grow in self-awareness, a key part of emotional intelligence. If we listen to our children, both to their words and what’s behind their words and actions, then we can learn. This way you are modelling for your children an approach based not on assumptions but on curiosity and connection.
May 20th, 2019
Yesterday there was a general election in Australia and the Labor party was widely predicted to win it. They had gone into the election with an unusually detailed set of policies for social and tax reform. In a shock result they were defeated and of course today analysts are poring over the loss to try to understand what happened.
You may wonder why I’m talking about an election result, particularly at a time when people across the world are expressing disenchantment with politicians. Well it’s because an election gives us a great opportunity to explore loss, defeat, and failure. In the developed world we are very focused on winning and certainly the new government and its supporters will be celebrating but if we don’t pay attention to failures not only are we likely to make the same mistakes again but we miss an opportunity to see that it’s not the wins or the losses that define us but what we do thereafter.
The leader of the ALP made a very gracious speech accepting that his party had lost, in which he acknowledged the hurt and the loss of the vision he had for his country, he congratulated the prime minister on his win and sincerely wished him and his family well and good fortune and good courage in the service of his country and he said that all had a responsibility to respect the result. He thanked many people who had helped in the campaign and he generously stood aside to make room for a new leader to lead the party to a future victory. He was very focused on the idea of success next time.
There is much to learn from this for our children. Children, like adults, experience failure on a daily basis and it is up to us as parents to teach them how to regard losses.
There are some very different approaches to failures. In one approach failure is just not an option. Success is defined by winning or high grades or scores and that is regarded as the goal, if not the only acceptable outcome. The focus is relentlessly on results. When a child comes home from school and we ask “How did the spelling test go?” we mean “what was your score?” The first question we ask after a sporting match is “Did you win?” Asking “what level are you on in the reading scheme?” rather than “did you enjoy that book?” is prioritising their place in the hierarchy over appreciation of stories and words and the truths expressed in them. This tells our children that winning matters, above all else. It prioritises results over enjoyment of the activity and whatever they may learn from participation in that activity. Coming first is more important than collaboration; your friends are your competitors; you have to do what it takes to get an edge over them. It sends the message that I am most interested in the end result. It is your performance that gets my attention and my approval. We unintentionally give the message that our regard is conditional.
When this happens not only can our children experience tremendous pressure and stress but they also do not learn to cope with failure. They do not learn that there is anything noble in defeat. They learn that it is to be avoided. And since it can’t be avoided they may learn to cover it up. They may learn to cheat so that failures can’t be seen or they may not be able to admit failures to themselves, thereby taking away any opportunity to learn from them. They develop a fixed mindset. This is the term coined by Professor Carol Dweck to refer to an attitude to learning characterised by a belief that intelligence is innate and fixed. People with fixed mindsets attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Students who hold a fixed mind-set, are concerned about looking smart with less regard for real learning. They have negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability. They think that a person with talent or intelligence does not need to work hard to do well.
In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed explores two different approaches of industries to failures. He looks at how the aviation industry looks at any aircraft failure, especially crashes, very closely to see what can be learned to avoid future problems. He also looked at the medical profession where in surgery in many countries a culture of cover up has developed with a failure to admit mistakes. The different approaches stem from an attitude toward failure.
Sometimes people who find failures difficult don’t cover up their failures but embrace them. Since success gets so much air time they may believe that everyone else is successful, especially if they believe the carefully curated pictures of lives on social media. That makes one’s personal failures doubly difficult since we think we’re the only ones getting it wrong, when in fact failing is the norm. They believe that they are failures and their low self-confidence prevents them from trying anything new or persevering with anything difficult. They believe that they can’t do it. They may protect themselves by living within very narrow parameters and not exposing themselves to failures, whether socially, academically or in professional life. Some protect themselves further by self-criticism –we make sure that there is nothing our critics could tell us that we have not already fully taken on board.
The defeated politician I mentioned at the start modelled a different approach. This is a model of a successful life as one in which we live with purpose and we throw ourselves into projects that give our lives meaning. We do our best and if that doesn’t achieve a goal we acknowledge the hurt and we have the courage to look at it and learn from it. And then we go forward with self-compassion, hope and determination to try again. All of this depends on having a growth mindset where effort is respected and failures not feared.
We can create this model for our children in the way we approach results and talk about failures. Above all else our children need to know that making mistakes (including in day to day interactions with others) is part of being human. We need to model a failure-tolerant attitude that includes:
So go forth and fail with equanimity and with grace!
June 21st, 2016
Many of you will have read the account of the rape of a girl by a young male athlete from Stanford University recently. The girl had attended the same party as her assailant and had drunk a considerable amount. So much, that she was not conscious when the assault occurred.
The case has attracted a lot of attention, partly because of the manner in which the defence was conducted, because of a letter from the boy’s father begging for clemency because the boy had such a bright future ahead of him, and partly because of the eventual leniency of the sentence, just 6 months. The family, the legal team and (it would appear) the judge excused the behaviour on account of the defendant’s promising future. What about the girl’s future?
Parents reading the account will, no doubt, have had strong reactions, whether you have sons or daughters or your children are still much younger than this boy or are in the later teenage years. Most parents who’ve spoken to me about this case are appalled at the manner of the young defendant, his legal team and his father when he suggested to the judge that his son should not have his promising career as a swimmer jeopardised by “20 minutes of action.” So it begs the question what should this dad have done? What should we do when our children are in the wrong? This is a most difficult position for a parent to be in and one where we have to be courageous and live out our values if we are to really help our children at the eleventh hour. As much as we might think we have communicated our values to our children they will still do wrong sometimes. It also prompts the further question, how do we prevent situations like this arising in the first place?
For the record I have been in that unenviable position (albeit in a minor way) of receiving that most unwanted call from the school. When my son was very young he hit another child in the playground and caused a nose-bleed. He was suspended from school. It didn’t feel minor at the time.
We are usually quick to judge other parents and you might think that I had not brought my son up with proper values about using force. Well, we thought we had. But he was 7 or 8 years old and very impulsive. His self-esteem was low, with an as yet undiagnosed learning difficulty and he regularly felt humiliated at school. That does not excuse the behaviour but it did serve to explain it and to direct our strategies. When we excuse we do nothing. When we seek to explain we are trying to understand it. His upbringing was of course still a work in progress; he was still learning. And to be frank at that stage my husband and I were not particularly skilled. This episode was one of the catalysts that sent us to take a parenting course that transformed our lives!
How do you pass on the values that you really care about to your children? How do you equip them with those standards that would allow them by the time they go to university to know how to behave toward a drunken girl at a party and for those values to be so embedded that they would guide your child’s actions even if he was drunk himself?
Parents model those values I hear you say. Of course this is a really big part of how we pass on our values. But the father of this aspiring undergraduate may never have assaulted anyone in front of his son. Our values get passed on in much more basic ways when they are much younger. While the boy in this case may not have witnessed outright physical violence in his own family, what did he absorb about respecting others generally and particularly toward women, did his parents discipline him by using force when he was young and was he held accountable for his actions growing up? In particular as his sporting prowess grew was he put on a pedestal and excused certain behaviours?
In Rosalind Wiseman’s excellent book Ringleaders and Sidekicks she talks about how being a top athlete gives a boy exalted status and how those talented sportsmen are often not held to account for their actions. I enjoyed her story of a wise coach who observed such behaviours in one of his team. When the team was travelling interstate for a match this particular boy pushed to the front of the queue when boarding the plane. This behaviour may not seem like much in itself but it is a small example of thinking oneself better than others. The coach took the unusual action of making the boy apologise to all the passengers in the cabin over the public address system. When adults take steps over small behaviours the values get embedded.
We parents pass on our values when:
When children get things wrong it isn’t effective to get mad at them but we do need to hold them accountable. At The Parent Practice we recommend The Mistakes Process which helps kids recognise why what they did wasn’t a good thing to do and to make amends for it. We believe in redemption. When our children do something wrong we want to forgive them but forgiveness depends on there being genuine remorse. That is much more likely when parents discipline without anger and judgment.
So what should this dad have done? Of course he should have stood by his son. But that doesn’t mean condoning or trying to excuse his behaviour. He should have supported his boy to take responsibility for his actions, like a man. And we know that would have taken a great deal of courage. But if the father can show it, maybe the son can too.
In what ways were you held accountable as a child? How have you required your children to make amends? Do share your stories with us.
March 21st, 2016
Even families who aren’t at all religious may practice certain rituals around Easter that fall on opposite ends of the consumption spectrum. At the beginning of Lent I know many who take the opportunity to ‘give up something for Lent’. At the end of that period there is often a great glut of consumption with chocolate overload. My gym is preparing us for this overindulgence now by exhorting us to burn calories in preparation!
So, knowing that modelling is at least 80% of parenting, what does this tell our children about self-control?
It is a good idea to teach children about moderation in consumption, or delayed gratification if not complete self-deprivation and maybe Lent is as good a time as any to do it. But maybe you want to introduce such ideas throughout the year rather than just one month?
My son had a highly impulsive temperament as a little boy and got into trouble a lot because of not stopping to think about his actions. On one memorable occasion he and his cousin dropped pebbles off the balcony of a high-rise apartment, not considering the consequences of that action. They didn’t think that the cars parked below might be damaged and that costs would be incurred and people would be upset. The parents were sorely tempted to come down hard with punishment and shouting (there had been plenty of that on previous occasions) but by then we knew that approach would have led to resentment without any learning. Instead the boys were (relatively) calmly held accountable and required to make amends and so took a step toward gaining some perspective and some self-control.
Here are some ideas to encourage children to be able to make choices for the future that depend on some sacrifice in the present, to show self-control:
In a world where many act to fulfil only their own desires and get into difficulties by not stopping to think teaching self-control is an amazing gift for your children.
For many more ideas like these look no further than Real Parenting for Real Kids: Enabling parents to bring out the best in their children (published on 27th April 2016). www.theparentpractice.com
July 27th, 2015
Hopefully you have discussed with your partner and your children the rules about screen time use and started to get clarity over how, when, where and what, as suggested in our first tip but you may still have been met with some serious resistance.
Hopefully you are using descriptive praise to motivate and saying many positive things to your child about their use of technology.
“I saw you put your phone to re-charge. That’s planning ahead - now it will be fully functional for tomorrow!”
“I love how you determined you are to work your way through this. You’re persevering, even though you’re getting frustrated.”
“You remembered our new rule about leaving the ipad in the drop zone.”
And yet you are still met with the whining tones of:
“Why won’t you let me play”?
“These are stupid rules. You are so unfair - no other parent does this to their kids.”
“Just one more minute, I have to finish this level…..”
And you are left thinking what now? I have communicated clearly what needs to happen, acknowledged when they have got it right and STILL they resist!
The secret to this is learning how to LISTEN and be an EMOTION COACH for your child
In order to help our children behave appropriately we need to accept how they feel. Being an emotion coach is not about indulgence or letting them get away with poor behaviour, but about understanding and connection.
Generally we don’t show much empathy when they say “You’re the only parent who is like this. Everyone else is on it, they spend HOURS playing. It’s so unfair, I hate you!”
A usual response would be :
“That’s not true.”
“Don’t be so rude”
“It’s not good for you and I’m the boss”
“ I don’t care what other people do. These are my rules!”
“Life’s tough, get with the programme.”
“School is really important, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t keep up your school work.”
“Don’t be silly – it’s not an important game!”
We rationalise, attack, dismiss their feelings, judge them, justify ourselves and generally tell them that they are WRONG and we are right.
And it does nothing to help you and your child manage their screen habits. If anything it encourages them to go undercover, or defy you. It doesn’t teach them any of the self-control or values we want them to learn!
What can we do instead?
Be your child’s emotion coach and understand that all feelings can be accepted, but some behaviours need to change.
The key is we don’t make our children wrong for the way they feel about things - whether that’s wanting to play Minecraft or preferring to watch TV than do homework. That doesn’t mean we let them play whenever they want.
We name it to tame it - we acknowledge that they wish they could play more or longer, that reading and maths can be hard, that everyone else has the new game….. We let them have their feelings .
We connect first so we can then teach and help them stick to the rules….
How does it sound?
“I can see you’re enjoying your new computer game. You really don’t want to stop and come to dinner. It’s frustrating to have to stop doing something you enjoy and it takes self-control to do something you don’t feel like doing.”
“I know you don’t want to turn the TV off. You’d like to be able to watch as much TV as you’d like”
“I know Jake is allowed to play Grand theft auto so you want to be able to play it too. You’re mad at me for saying no. I know you think it would be ok because it’s not really real life. I appreciate you do know the difference between games and real life. It’s hard for you to understand why I don’t think this is healthy for you. Let me tell you what I don’t like about it…”
This is how we build rapport and trust - we show them we understand how they feel, and we are on their side to help them do the things they need to do, but may not want to do. When your child feels heard and understood there will be less resistance and he will be more accepting of your rules and values. He will be more able to problem solve and look for solutions. What an amazing gift to give your child.
What are you waiting for? Give it a go today and be your child’s emotion coach.
July 19th, 2015
When the summer holidays begin we are excited about the thought of no nagging about homework, longer days to play in the garden and the fact that we are not such a slave to the clock. However the first flush of enthusiasm can quickly die away with the realisation that our children may be spending too long on screens and we are using them as a babysitter.
You may be wondering:
“How much screen time should my children be having?” and
“How do I control my children’s screen usage?”
Managing screens is not about coercion and control as that can only lead to long term problems. The answer lies in connection and communication.
If you think about keeping your kids safe around a swimming pool we can protect them from falling in by putting up fences and setting alarms and using padlocks and banning them from going near, but the most important thing to do is TO TEACH THEM HOW TO SWIM.
The same is true for screen safety. The more we nag and shout and blame and criticise and forbid and take away and threaten, the more children will push back and try and regain control. It may work to get them off the gadget in the moment but does nothing to help them long term to enable them to exercise self-control around screens. Children do need limits and boundaries and they are not YET able to set these from themselves so we need to do it for them. The trick is to set ones that will work, that we feel comfortable and competent to implement. We also need to remember that our role is to teach self-control.
Rules for the Digital Jungle:
If they do break the rules we usually take the gadget away and punish them for getting it wrong. This sort of works in the moment, BUT they are may be defiant and FURIOUS with us. A better approach is:
“The rule is that you play on your ipad after kumon and the positive consequence is that you get to play the next day. (Or better still ask them what the rule and reward is.) As your kumon sheet is untouched and you’re on the ipad, remind me what is the consequence?"
“I don’t get the ipad the next day!”
Exactly! And when they lose access they may feel guilty and angry… and that’s ok. Our job as parents is allow them to feel that disappointment and anger, empathise but not back down.
Tune into Secret No 2 on screen time sanity to find out how we stay firm to our values around screen use.
June 18th, 2015
Father’s day in the UK is on the 21st June. I know some people are a bit bah humbug about these ‘Hallmark’ days and regret the commercialisation of such occasions but I think we should seize the opportunity to celebrate fathers.
There is the risk, especially with newborns, that women can take over parenting and assume (or have thrust upon them) an ‘expert’ role which Dads can go along with in some relief. But this is to miss out on a great resource and ‘expertise’ that men bring to parenting. Men have a unique style to their parenting that women tend not to have and children who don’t experience this are missing out.
Some dad facts:
Where fathers are not present in their children’s lives the kids really benefit from being involved with ‘uncle’ figures.
What are the differences in style?
When considering the question what do mums and dads contribute to the role of parent ask yourself what would each do/say when watching a little boy climb up a climbing frame or tree?
Dads typically say “go on, you can do it. Well done, reach for it.”
Whereas Mums might say “Be careful, watch where you put your feet, take your time.”
Fathers tend to foster independence and encourage adventure. Mothers are generally caretakers and teachers and are often more cautious.
This is what the kids think:
Mummies are smaller and Daddies are bigger.
Dads normally go out to work and you come out of mummy’s tummy.
Dads have fun and mums don’t.
Mums listen and Dads don’t…it’s the same for all my mates.
(Source: Netmums March 09)
While we don’t want to minimise the importance of the nurturing, the encouraging and the listening that mums are traditionally good at let’s celebrate what dads do well:
To begin with Dads do play with kids, while Mums sometimes don’t give it as much priority as they do the laundry, the cooking, the chauffeuring and the supervising of homework and music practice etc. When Roald Dahl died his children wrote about their memories of him and predictably they valued the story telling and creating he encouraged in them. My guess is when we die our children will remember the play times and the conversations with us rather than the fact that we always ensured they had clean and matching socks.
Dads tend to be more physical than mums in the way they play. Mums generally play visual games and are verbal with babies and young children while dads are more physical and tactile. There’s much that is good about both styles and children benefit from both. Rough and tumble play by dads predicts better self control abilities in their children. (Source: Gottman institute)
Encourage independence and risk taking
Dads encourage kids to climb higher, go to the store on their own, go down the highest slides etc while mums may have to stifle the urge to keep their babies safe. Encouraging self reliance and reasonable risk taking in children encourages them to discover what they are capable of and to grow in confidence. If children become fearful they will not grow and will not acquire essential life skills and coping strategies for dealing with the world.
Allow kids to experience uncomfortable feelings
When dads recognise their children’s struggles and allow them to experience some frustration and learning through failure they are helping children grow through experience. When we protect our children from their feelings of discomfort or frustration we can prevent valuable learning in the same way as if we prevent them from making discoveries physically. Although we shouldn’t shield our children from uncomfortable feelings we can help them identify them and manage them by acknowledging what’s going on. Eg I can see you’re feeling frustrated with those wretched shoe laces –but I like the way you’re persevering. You don’t give up easily do you?
Don’t judge or compare self with other parents
Dads are less prone to perfectionism than women in the parenting field and less apt to compare and judge their own or others’ parenting efforts. A great combination in a dad is that willingness to trust his instincts with an openness to new ideas.
Being a good role model
Dads are needed as good role models for their sons, especially in areas like school work, responsibility, handling physicality and aggression, how to treat women, how to handle and express emotions and seeking support when they need it. Men can show their boys how to be determined without taking competition to harmful levels. Dads are also important models for their daughters as they show them how to relate to the opposite sex. How a father treats his daughter sets up expectations for what she’ll look for in adult relationships with men. Involvement in his daughter’s life profoundly affects her self esteem.
Mums, while encouraging your children to show their love for their dads, let your partners know what you appreciate about them this father’s day.
March 20th, 2015
I think parents these days are often mindful about stereotyping on the basis of gender and try to avoid it by not dressing their children in ‘gendered’ colours (but did you know that up until the early 20th century pink was thought of as a strong boys’ colour?), providing them with opportunities to play with toys and to take part in sports or activities generally associated with the opposite sex, exposing them to different role models (in literature and in reality) and speaking to them in gender neutral terms.
But it’s actually really easy to get caught out by little gendered remarks that slip out unnoticed. For instance have you told either your sons or daughters to ‘man up’? What does that mean? If it means to toughen up and be strong is that an attribute just for men? If it means don’t give in to your feelings or don’t talk about your feelings or, worse, don’t have those feelings, what are we saying about men and emotions? The answer to that last question was made abundantly clear to me once when I was giving a workshop on Raising Boys. I was talking about encouraging boys to identify and manage their feelings when one father said “I would question my son’s masculinity if he was talking about his feelings”!
Sometimes with the best of intentions we’ll say things like “big boys don’t cry.” In hundreds of little ways we give our sons the message that it is weak and unmanly to express emotion and to be a man is to cope on your own. Statistics show what terrible repercussions this has for adult men not seeking help when they need it –men don’t even go to the doctor let alone ask directions! More seriously the suicide rate is much higher in men than women.
It’s just as problematic if we’re giving limiting messages to our daughters. Have we fallen into the trap of calling our daughters ‘bossy’ for behaviour that we would find acceptably assertive in our sons? I hope you’ve seen the wonderful you tube video ‘Run like a girl’ by Proctor & Gamble which aims to celebrate the phrase rather than allowing it to be derisory.
And of course there is still much stereotyping in music, the media, video games and in film through images and the behaviours portrayed by men and women despite recent efforts by children’s programme makers. Certain ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities are ascribed to men and women. And children will be exposed to a lot of gendered stereotypes in shops with pink and blue aisles and packaging as well as boy toys and girl toys.
There is much that parents can do to avoid these stereotypes and to offer contrary images and messages to those absorbed through the media etc. But what if, in spite of your best efforts, your child is the one coming up with stereotypes for boys’ and girls’ behaviour?
One parent told us that her three and a half year old son had been making comments like "only boys can play with this…" to which the mum responded that "Actually boys AND girls can play with the same toys!" she was curious as to where this fixed attitude came from as neither she or her husband had ever consciously stereotyped boys vs girls. She said she always tried to use gender-neutral words such as ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’ etc.
It is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate behaviour for a young child to explore his or her identity including gender roles. Research has shown that children may be born with gendered tastes in toys, in that girls prefer dolls over cars and nothing we do or say can change this! However up until the age of 12 months boys are equally interested in dolls. It is only after this age that boys show a preference for toys with wheels, whereas girls continue to prefer dolls. This suggests that this is attributable to social factors rather than genetics. By the age of 3 or 4 children have surprisingly definite ideas about what behaviour and dress is appropriate for boys and girls. By this age most children when interviewed give stereotypical answers about behaviours appropriate for male and female dolls -100% of the children interviewed in one study said the female doll liked to clean the house and took care of the babies while the male doll went out to work!
These perceptions of ‘boys’ toys’ or ‘girls’ toys’ and dress and behaviour show a normal, healthy development of gender identity and a natural inclination to want to fit in with their sex. This adapting to belong is a sign of good social skills but parents are wise to offer contrary messages as well. The strongest message we can give our children is through what we model so if boys see their dad sewing on a button or cooking a meal they will think that is an appropriate activity for a male. Likewise if mum mends the fuses or changes a tyre then obviously women can do those things. Children will model themselves on the same gender parent so dads please let your sons know its ok to talk about your feelings.
Children this age are very black and white –its only as they get older that they can understand the grey areas of life, including the idea that boys and girls can do things beyond the stereotypes.
January 06th, 2015
This is the time of year for new year’s resolutions of course and while it’s good to set goals (so you know where you are aiming to get to) sometimes new year’s resolutions become a major guilt exercise and there’s enough of that around parenting already. The worst kind of resolutions are those that are proposed for you by someone else! Bit like receiving a gym membership as a Christmas present! (Thanks Hun.)
Resolutions, like goals at any other time of year, often fail for being too ambitious, not precise enough and not being something you really believe in or are committed to. No new year’s resolution will work unless it is in line with your values, what you are passionate about. You have to make your own resolutions to be committed to them.
But if you’re in a kind of spring cleaning for the mind sort of space and you want some easy targets to help you build stronger relationships with your children (and others) then some of the 21 easy to follow suggestions below may be ones you can adopt and adapt.
Hope 2015 is a calm and happy year for your family.
September 30th, 2014
Do you ever feel guilt and regret for something that you’ve said to your child? The words that just came out of your mouth sounded as if they were from an alien being (and awfully like some things your mother said to you, and you vowed you would never say) and there is no way you would speak like that to your best friend! Immediately you regret what you said – no surprise that your child is now arguing with you. Both of you have just fallen into one of the parenting manholes – it is deep and dark and unless you have your parenting skills toolkit to hand, you are both stuck!
Don’t feel bad –we all make mistakes with the things we say. Read on to the end to see what you can do to remedy matters if you have verbally vomited on your child.
Faber and Mazlish, authors of ‘How to talk so teens will listen, and listen so teens will talk’ tell a story of a girl in her late teens who had borrowed the family car. The father always insisted that she return the car with the petrol tank full. He was also a real stickler for punctuality, so the girl was faced with a problem when she had to get home for a family event and found herself short of time. Should she fill up and risk being late, or arrive on time, with a not-full petrol tank? In the end, she gambled, and filled the tank and still managed to make it home on time. She was so relieved that she raced in and said, “Dad, I’m home on time AND I’ve filled the car with petrol!” She was met with, “Did you put oil in it as well?”
We parents get into the habit of noticing what’s wrong with our children’s behaviour and we often don’t notice what they’re doing right. It can feel very hard for kids to win parental approval. And sometimes they stop trying.
So what are the things we say that don’t show respect and don’t motivate our children?
“Hurry up Tom. You are so SLOW…..if it was down to you we would never get to school on time”
“I am so DISAPPOINTED in you – I should have known better than that!”
“You’re so LAZY….I am sure you will ace those exams if you sit around on your backside all day gaming!”
The language we use with our kids is crucial to developing a good sense of self-worth but in the moment when our buttons get pressed we utter statements that, if said by a friend, would cause us to re-think our friendship!
Things you’ll regret saying to your children:
1. Labelling. It is so easy to start labelling children with LAZY, SILLY, NAUGHTY, SELFISH – the more we label our children the more they believe what we are saying and take it on as part of their identity. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why ideas such as ‘the naughty step’ can be positively damaging to our children (watch out for another blog on how the naughty step can damage your child.)
2. “I’m disappointed in you” –this is a killer statement. It’s not always obvious but our children really crave our approval and this phrase lets them know really clearly that they don’t have it. The connotations underlying this are ‘what a failure you are’.
3. “ I’m proud of you”. I know, you’re wondering what’s wrong with that –it’s definitely not the worst thing you could say to a child. We’ve all said this when our child returns from nursery or school clutching the medal or certificate – we are genuinely thrilled for their success. However it is vital we encourage our kids to value themselves, not be dependent on OUR evaluation of them. Encourage them to assess their achievements, saying:
“what did you do today that you were proud of?” or
“you should free proud of yourself for doing that.”
4. ‘If’- When trying to get kids to do something we often say “if you tidy up your toys, you can watch TV.” ‘If’ implies it is optional. Replace ‘If’ with ‘when’ and you get a completely different response. ‘When’ implies trust that they are going to tidy up and when this is done they will have earned their screen time.
5. ‘But’ – When you put ‘but’ in a sentence it negates what has preceded it and your child only hears the ‘but’ and the negative coming after it.
“Looks as if you have made an effort to tidy the toy room Laura, BUT you have put the Lego bricks in the wrong place again.” Instead you can say:
“Hey Laura– good on you for tidying up the playroom all by yourself! Do you remember the new place we have for the Lego bricks that keeps them safe and away from baby Tom?”
6. “You’re so clever.” Studies have shown that the ‘clever boy’ kind of praise is actually damaging to kids. Children praised for intelligence perform less well on tasks than children who are praised for effort and attitude.
Words are powerful and shape experience.
What we are trying to do as parents is use our words to encourage good behaviours and to build up a strong sense of self-worth. If we get it wrong we can apologise. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you and called you stupid. You’re not stupid. I was frustrated and worried that we would be late.” “This morning when we were rushing to leave the house I didn’t tell you how much I appreciate you helping your sister get ready. She loves it when you brush her hair.”
PS: Grab your free parenting insights by signing up to our mailing list by clicking on the ‘Sign-up’ button on the top left of this page. I promise it will help you bring out the best in your children and give them happy childhoods and bright futures.
Happy parenting! Elaine and Melissa
March 03rd, 2014
I have a friend who has a son who is 18 and in his final year at school. He has just received an offer from a university conditional upon him gaining an A,B,C in his A levels. This is a truly remarkable thing. You may think it’s not that remarkable as you will know that students all over the country will be receiving offers and some will have more difficult obstacles to overcome in terms of grade requirements. But this is an amazing achievement for this young man.
When I first met him he was 7 years old and had had a tough life up until that point. He is very dyslexic and had been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder. He felt very different and most inadequate. He believed he was a bad person. Indeed he was a very angry young boy. The first time I met him he brought his fist down really hard on his mother’s foot which she’d hurt. He was generally quite aggressive and definitely oppositional. His parents were at their wits’ end, having received much conflicting advice and having tried most opportunities available for a child with his set of difficulties. Travelling on public transport was a complete nightmare as he was all over the place and wouldn’t listen to anything anyone told him to do-it was sometimes dangerous and always embarrassing. He had been to three special needs schools and been excluded from all of them. One school had been so unable to manage his behaviour that they locked him in a cupboard!
Luckily his parents were not going to give up on him. Parents don’t generally give up on their children but sometimes they do accept that there are limits to what can be achieved of course. They took positive parenting courses and trained hard to help him. They researched all kinds of different therapies to support him. But mostly they never gave up on the picture they had of who he could be. I don’t mean that they wanted him to be a scholar or an athlete or a musician or follow any particular career path but they knew he was a good and capable person.
They found schools which could support him and it became possible for him to attend school because of all the work they put in at home. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve always been amazed at the way he progressed. He has always had drive and a self-belief that I think comes, not in small part, from his parents’ belief in him. It may not be possible for him to achieve these ABC grades but I wouldn’t like to bet on that because I don’t think anyone knows what’s possible for him. He keeps pushing on past the boundaries of what was thought possible. Literacy is still a struggle for him but this young man will not be stopped by that. He has great resilience and a maturity well beyond his years. His social skills are very acute and he has insights about people rare in someone his age.
I’m not advocating a ‘tiger mum’ approach to pushing our kids to achieve, to acquire accomplishments and qualifications but knowing this boy has given me an insight into what’s possible, not just with blind faith, but with hard work. What has worked here has been 10 years of acknowledging small steps in the right direction, much concrete and specific and sincere affirmation of effort and improvement more than results, requiring him to do the most that he was capable of while using small steps to prepare, giving him responsibilities and encouraging independence, helping him understand and accept his feelings of difference, his anxieties, his frustrations and anger, and helping him learn from failures and bounce back from set-backs. One of the really effective things this family has done is spend time together in play –they all play golf and both children have developed skills in this area. The boy has developed passions in this and other areas that are separate from school work which has helped his sense of achievement. There are no glass ceilings when your sense of self-worth is strong. I don’t mean that he will be studying medicine or astrophysics but he will be able to lead a really fulfilling productive life, doing the best that he is capable of. That is every parent’s dream for their children.
February 18th, 2014
Parents often comment on the difficulty of managing multiple children and how everyone always clamours for mum’s attention.
Attention is always a good place to start when thinking about being an effective parent. Rule No. 1 is that children are hardwired to seek our attention. It ensured their survival when we all lived in caves. When everyone is striving to get our attention it is helpful to replace the thoughts ‘Why are they so demanding’, ‘Can’t they see I am overwhelmed’, ‘How do they expect me to do everything at once’………..with the thought ‘of course they want my attention – they’re hardwired for this’. It doesn’t immediately turn the moment into sweetness and light, but it does make you feel a bit more empathetic towards them….and realize they are not doing this because they are thoughtless and mean.
Here are a few tips to help smooth the way:
Ensure you notice and comment on good behaviour significantly more than bad. All too often we say nothing when they are behaving well and only pay attention when they are starting to misbehave. From a kid’s perspective any attention is better than none – so they will take the bad route if they have to.
Try to carve out some individual time for each child. It may only be 30 mins once a week, but in those 30 minutes let the child lead the activity. It might be a dolls’ tea party with your five year old daughter or a game of hide and seek with your eight year old son. The point is they will feel valued and special by having this time – and it is about their agenda – so no pretending it is special time with mum whilst they practice their times tables!
Every so often organise individual ‘daddy dates’. Perhaps a visit to Pizza Express, a trip to the Science Museum but it could also be as simple as a walk in the park. Diarise it in advance and mention it in the run up to the event. It will make the child feel you are really focused on them.
Turn your phone off over meal times so you are not continually distracted and can have a proper conversation. It is also excellent modeling for the times we want them to turn off their digital devices.
If your children continually talk over each other, institute a talking stick. This was an ancient Native American tradition where only the person with the talking stick was allowed to speak and they were always allowed to finish before the talking stick was handed over to the next person. Start with a physical stick and then move to a metaphorical one once everyone understands the concept.
Try to promote collaboration between siblings – not competition. You want your children to feel there is plenty of attention to go round and they are not in a competition for it. In this vain try to avoid saying things like ‘I wish you could be more organized in the mornings like your sister’, ‘why can’t you eat as nicely as your brother’, ‘the first child to finish their dinner is the winner’.
Schedule quality family relaxation time at the weekend. Play a board game together, have a long lunch in which everyone gets involved in helping to prepare and clear up. Go and play catch in the playground. Ensure the weekend is not just a non-stop series of scheduled activities with children and parents all going in separate ways
In a recent survey by UNICEF UK the thing that children wanted most from their parents was not more toys, or more electrical gadgets…..it was simply more time with their parents.
Try the suggestions above. The funny thing you find about children, the more they feel confident of having your attention, the less they fear they are going to be criticised for asking for your attention……the less they clamour for it!
September 03rd, 2013
(Things to teach your kids before they fly the nest)
What did your children learn over the summer holidays? At The Parent Practice a quick survey of parents revealed an interesting array of skills. This prompted the question what life skills do you think your children need to have before they leave home. Our job is to equip our children with the skills they need to be successful adults and we need to start training while they are young.
Our parents think children need to know how to (these are not in order of importance and only some of these ideas reveal what some of our parents coped with during their holidays! This is a list of practical skills; we have not included social skills here or the list would have covered several pages):
• iron (a shirt)
• sew on a button or a hem
• swim and ride a bike
• change a fuse and a light bulb … and the loo roll
• manage money and operate a bank account
• pay a bill, using a cheque or electronic bank transfer
• cook basic meals or at least boil an egg and make a cup of tea (it doesn’t matter if you don’t drink tea)
• write a thank you note/email/text/phone call
• write a personal/professional/complaint/acknowledgement letter
• know all your relevant ID information (NHS number, National Insurance, driver’s license, passport … and the relevant expiration dates…or where to find them)
• know how to operate the answering machine at home (without deleting a message meant for someone else. There’s a story here!)
• do laundry properly, that is not just how to operate a washing machine, but how to separate colours, decide what needs a special program, what can go in the tumble dryer, how much laundry powder to use, how to hang laundry out properly so it will actually dry, why not to leave damp laundry mouldering in the basket etc
• hang up clothes that aren’t heading to the laundry basket
• do basic first aid
• use some basic self-defence moves
• mow a lawn, recognise a weed and what to do with it
• basic cleaning skills, particularly how to clean a toilet and shower/bath and how often to wash towels and sheets
• remove stains from carpets and sofas
• bleed a radiator
• turn off the stop cock (and know where it is)
• use public transport
• fill a car with petrol and oil, jump start a car with a flat battery, open the bonnet, change a tyre, fix a puncture or call the AA
• clean a car
• use a condom (we did say learn before leaving the nest-it doesn’t have to be tomorrow)
• use power tools and a screwdriver
• fill in forms
• make appointments with doctors and dentists
• make phone calls or use the internet to get information
• back up a computer/ipod/phone etc
• recognise scam emails and fake websites
• protect yourself on-line and what to do if you come across cyber-bullying and trolling
• set a SIM PIN on your phone
• write a shopping list and come home with almost everything on it and not much else that wasn’t on it
• pack a suitcase
• not wake a baby, and how to distract the baby when they get really crabby later
• not make rude shapes out of babybel cheese rinds and leave them in your pocket so they go through the wash and ruin everything else in the machine
• not get confused between deodorant and hairspray.
• if you’re moving house or to a new country, make sure to pack the online banking security gadgets, a few kitchen knives and at least 1 wine glass (lesson learned!!)
What to do if:
• they get lost or locked out of the house
• someone offers them a lift and they are unsure or offers them anything and they are unsure, basically how to say no
• with a jellyfish sting that doesn’t involve the traditional weeing on it (it’s vinegar, by the way!)
When to call a friend, their parents, an ambulance, the police, a computer support person, an electrician, a plumber, the gas man and deal with emergencies
Golly! We’d better start intense training now!
June 13th, 2013
Fathers’ day in the UK is in June. Rather than paying lipservice to it by buying a card for the kids to give Dad or (better) encouraging them to make one, it’s worth considering the role of fathers on this day. Mums, what do you value about your partner? Kids what do you love about Dad? Make sure that if you’re giving him a card you include some descriptive praise for him. In other words tell him specifically what you like to do with him or what you appreciate about him.
Is it the way he pretends to be an elephant and lets you climb on his back? Is it the pillow fights you have? Is it the funny voice he uses when reading you stories? Is it the way he helps you with your homework? Maybe you love his jokes or his crazy singing. Maybe you appreciate that he sits down with you quietly at bedtime and talks to you about your day and stuff you’re interested in. Maybe you love the way he supports you in trying new things like riding your bike or flying a kite or learning guitar. Maybe you just love your dad because he loves you.
There is a great deal of research and evidence that shows that when fathers (and father figures) are engaged in their children’s lives children do better academically and socially and have stronger self-esteem. (A longitudinal study done with 300 families by Stanford University beginning in the 1950s found that the best predictor of adult empathy was dads’ involvement in child rearing when the children were 5 years old and those men and women who had better social relationships in their 40s had experienced increased warmth from fathers as children. Nugent, JK. (1991) Cultural and Psychological Influences on the Father’s Role in Infant Development. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53)
Children whose fathers are emotionally engaged show greater resilience, are able to focus on their studies better, persevere longer, take reasonable risks and are less aggressive. Girls who get positive attention from their fathers also are less at risk from eating disorders and self-harm and make better partner choices. In addition when dads are involved from an early point in a baby’s life the couple relationship benefits, if the couple should separate there is higher degree of father contact, fathers adopt healthier lifestyles, and mothers are less likely to smoke or suffer from depression. (Sources: The Fatherhood institute, Fatherhood: Parenting Programmes and Policy -A Critical Review of Best Practice, www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/?p=3744; the Gottman institute)
So what can mums do to facilitate fathers’ engagement with kids?
It’s not unusual for fathers to withdraw when a new baby arrives. Mums need a lot of emotional support which is typically provided by women who are mothers and dad can feel pushed out. He may feel inexpert as mum spends more time with the new infant (sometimes the women may even laugh at dad’s incompetence at changing nappies, feeding, bathing) so he does what he knows how to do and spends more time at work. He may also feel a strong urge to provide for his new family. In fact studies show dads are just as competent as mums in knowing how to respond to a crying baby (Ross Parke: fathers held and rocked infants more than mums and equalled them in talking, kissing and exploring. Throwaway Dads: The myths and Barriers That Keep Men From Being The Fathers They Want To Be. 1999 Houghton Mifflin).
From the time they are babies right through to adulthood women can encourage dads to take an active role with their kids by not criticising or laughing at their efforts but instead appreciating them for what they do. Recognise that in fact men have something unique to offer in parenting. Fathers tend to foster independence and encourage adventure. Dads tend to give children more freedom to explore. Mothers are generally caretakers and teachers and are often more cautious.
The differences are very marked in the way they each play with children. Mums tend to play visual games and are verbal with children while dads are more physical and tactile. (Gottman: when given a choice of play partners 2/3 of 2 ½ year olds prefer dad.) Dad’s style is more jazzed up and has heightened intensity followed by periods of calm in contrast to mum’s more even style. Provided dads know how to calm a child when over stimulated this style is very effective at helping children regulate emotions.
• Dads are more likely to be involved when they feel they’re doing a good job -acknowledge them for all their positive parenting input but especially for spending time with the children eg: Thanks for coming home early and minding the children while I went out. It was great to see you had fed everyone and read stories (even if the house is a tip when you get back).
• Schedule time for Dads to play with the kids. It is a strength for them. Get dads to encourage a healthy attitude to competition – have rules around rough play. When playing board games model a good attitude to losing.
• Encourage Dads to do practical things around the house such as cooking or hanging out the washing. It is good modelling for the children, stimulates their interest in those activities, includes Dad as part of the team and leaves more time for fun.
• Use descriptive praise to reward his efforts eg. I really appreciate it when you remember to put the rubbish out/empty the dishwasher, rather than pointing out the soggy bath mat on the floor. Can’t you ever wipe down a surface? doesn’t motivate anyone!
• Don’t expect perfection in parenting skills either for your partner or yourself. Increase his awareness of the skills by downloading parenting CDs onto his ipod or giving him small chapters of books to read; it’s less likely to feel like nagging or be overwhelming. Praise his willingness to read/listen. When we are criticised while parenting in the moment we can feel undermined and de-motivated.
• Take the children to visit Dad at work; get Dads to talk about their world and what they do when they go away from the family. Encourage Dads to phone at a regular time when away from the home to make them feel included and to let children know their Dad is thinking of them.
• Achieve a united front on matters of discipline by scheduling regular time together to discuss child-relates issues eg. A strategy for training children to put their own shoes on (rather than Mum trying to encourage self- reliance and Dad doing it for them) or what to do when they have a tantrum (it won’t work if Mum thinks the child should go to their room and Dad thinks it is better to listen and try to find the source of the problem). Focus on solutions more than the problem and keep track of progress by writing it down. Find a workable compromise for areas where you don’t have exactly the same values eg. how much screen time should children have?
• Use “I feel” statements rather than “You never, you always” when you have a difference of opinion. Eg “I feel my discipline is undermined if you say yes to something I’ve just said no to without checking with me. That makes me feel like the bad guy and it’s a bit lonely.”
• Remember less can be more when communicating with men. Sometimes emails or notes work better than direct speech.
May 04th, 2013
I am in a state of euphoria following the joyous and loving wedding last week of my middle child.
( I KNOW! How did that happen?) It seems only yesterday I was pulling my hair out wondering how to manage the little renegade, worrying that all my efforts to discipline him were doing him irreparable damage while being completely ineffective anyway. This is the child that regulars in my classes and workshops will know was the impetus for my husband and I taking the parenting course that changed my career and more importantly changed our family’s life and taught me so much about inter-personal relationships generally. So now he’s embarking on his own very important interpersonal relationship and I am really confident that he will handle it well.
When your child takes a partner (and yours may feel a long way off from this – but best to prepare now) you might have a secret wish list that you may not even be aware of yourself for the qualities you would like to find in that person. (Not that you have any say of course –but just hoping!) You would of course wish for them to make your child happy and hope that they will always have your beloved’s back. I am confident that my son and his new wife have three of the necessary attributes that make for a good partnership: they are really good friends, they know how to handle conflict and they share many of the same values. It was apparent that one of their shared values (from the way they planned their wedding) was a common belief in family. Every single member of their extended (and extensive) families was included in some way.
We can start preparing our children, however young, for future relationships (and current ones) by:
January 31st, 2013
Do you ever feel like life is a race and you are left wondering where the finish line is? Are you worried that life will overtake you? Do you feel that your life as a parent is one big race against time with our quest to ensure our children are doing x in order to achieve Y and not be left behind. Whether it’s speed walking, speed dating, speed dialling and heaven forbid speed drive-thru funerals in USA there is a need for us all to just SLOW down and perhaps not cram so much into our day.
Carl Honoré’s latest book on Slow Parenting raises some really key questions for us all as parents and has been written as a response to the helicopter parenting we have been seeing where parents are micromanaging their children’s lives to such an extent that parenting is now seen by some as product development or akin to a professional pastime. Students are not coping at University – unable to stand on their own and Merrill Lynch offers Parent Days to cater to the professional pack of parents ready to try and negotiate their offspring’s salary package.
As a society we are going badly wrong – robbing children of their childhood as evidenced by increasing cases of mental health issues, eating disorders, binge drinking, substance abuse and prolific teenage sexual activity.
So what can you do as a parent to find your tempo and ensure your children have a balanced journey of discovery?
So if you are worried life will overtake you – you’re wrong. Life is where you are now and when we slow down we find life has a natural groove that is richer more pleasurable and more fulfilling – we may do fewer things but what we do, we do well.
When the Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore – home of tiger mom culture – spoke on the National Day of Singapore about the Singaporean style of parenting, and launched an attack on tiger mothers in a speech last year , you know it’s time to change . He berated parents for “coaching their three- or four-year-old children to give them that extra edge over the five-year-old competition”. And he added: “Please let your children have their childhood…Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It’s good for young children to play, and to learn through play.”
So when was the last time you stopped and allowed your child to have those moments looking at the ice crystals and the snow patterns or the rain drops?
When was the last time you took a really deep slow breath and felt the natural air ticking over of your respiratory system – breathing in and out long deep breaths to their comfortable conclusion, until you are flooded with calm.
We all know it’s time to slow down.
November 14th, 2012
My husband and I have been following Lance Armstrong’s career since he started racing in the Tour de France following his battle with cancer. We read his books, bought LiveStrong bracelets and clothes, and in 2010 we even went to Paris for the last stage of the TdF, when Armstrong raced his final Tour.
Recently it was announced that Armstrong had been officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and that his best race result would have been 36th – before his cancer diagnosis. This story has been making headlines for weeks, and has been simmering since Floyd Landis (Armstrong’s former teammate and winner of the 2006 TdF) started commenting on the systemic doping that took place. The recent news essentially eradicates the career that made Armstrong a household name. Pat McQuaid, the President of the International Cycling Union (UCI) said, “There is no place for Lance Armstrong in cycling. “ [He is] a serial cheat who led one of the worst doping conspiracies in sport.”
Armstrong wasn’t acting alone. He was part of a team of doctors, coaches, team managers and other cyclists who were all involved in the doping. The Tour de France is leaving those 7 years without a winner, as they would be pretty hard-pressed to find a cyclist who wasn’t doping during those years. It’s when the story gets a bit deeper and shows that not only was Armstrong doping, it was how he pretty much bullied former team-mates and others who testified against him. Many articles appeared that describe abusive voicemail messages that Armstrong used against those who would testify against him. The wife of one of Armstrong’s former teammate “described receiving a voicemail from an Armstrong friend telling her she hoped ‘somebody breaks a baseball bat over your head,’ after her husband spoke out about doping allegations.” Clearly doping is not good, but covering your tracks and bullying people into helping you cover your tracks? Well, that’s quite possibly even worse.
Why is this story so interesting story for me, as a parenting facilitator? Well, Lance Armstrong has 5 children – 3 from his first marriage, and 2 from his current relationship. In the past he tweeted regularly about his children and especially the joy he and his partner felt when she fell pregnant – especially after all his cancer treatment and surgery. I can imagine that he will get through the damage to his career – as he said, “I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.” The side of the story I am fascinated by is how you repair the damage with your family and other loved ones. This situation provides a wealth of learning.
1. Winning at any cost will most likely catch up with you at some point
When we teach our children to play games, we teach them to play fair and to not cheat. We’ll say thing like “cheaters never win”, and even though sometimes it seems that they do, eventually some evidence will come out that will stamp out the victory.
We can work with our children to teach them rules, to advise them about what is and is not fair play. We can set up a system that rewards values like collaboration or accepting successes and losses graciously. We can always be on the look out for when our children are exhibiting the behaviours we want to be seeing more of. We need to notice and acknowledge such behaviour.
We want to be raising our children to take pride in their efforts, their improvement and their attitude instead of being the best at any cost.
2. Model honesty and integrity
About a year ago, Melissa Hood, the co-founder of The Parent Practice wrote a terrific blog called 80% of Parenting is Modeling in which she writes:
“Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”.…
Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values.”
It is so important to have an idea of what values you want to be passing on to your children, to model those values and to establish rules that help you bring those values to life within your family. One of the values we might seek to model is being happy with our own best efforts, measuring our value, not by outcomes, but by our efforts. Model enjoying sport or other games, even if we don’t win. Focus not on the results of our children’s matches but on their enjoyment of the game and how well they participated.
Find New Heroes
This past summer was one that will go down in history as probably the best ever for UK sport. Bradley Wiggins with Team Sky won the General Classification in the TdF, Mark Cavendish had his 23rd TdF stage win and that was all before the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics where this country saw incredible athletes pushing themselves to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. We’ll never forget Jessica Ennis, or Mo Farah or the amazing Paralympians. It is so important to learn from our own limitations, as well as from those of others. In doing so, we can be honest, authentic parents who set an example of integrity and passion that will empower our children.
3. Make Amends and Move Forwards
One word that Lance Armstrong often used in his Twitter posts was ‘onward’ … continuous positive momentum. It’s a powerful notion that will serve him well after he takes responsibility for the mistakes he has made. Like Armstrong, we can all move forward once we take responsibility for our mistaken behaviour, put wrongs to right, and explore ways to make sure that the same thing won’t happen again. We like to call this The Mistakes Process (or the 4As). It goes like this:
Explore (without judgment) what happened and why it was a mistake. Use the mistake as an opportunity for everyone to learn. Acknowledge the courage required to fess up to having made a mistake.
2. Make AMENDS
This is all about putting wrongs to right. This can look many different ways ranging from a sincere apology; cleaning up an actual mess; fixing something that got broken; writing a letter; or doing something nice for someone else. Often, it is the simple act of fixing the mistake that provides the lesson so the same thing doesn’t happen again. And it is so much more effective than shouting!
This is where you want to take some time to explore what could have been done differently so that it will be less likely to happen again.
This is where ‘onwards’ comes into play. You have taken responsibility for the mistake, you have cleaned up your mess, and you have looked at how to make sure to get it (more) right next time. It is done. It is now in the past. It is time to acknowledge that a positive lesson has been learned. Onwards!
I imagine that Armstrong’s oldest son has always seen his Dad as a hero, and it must be very hard to hear that your Dad won because he cheated and to witness the fallout. The damage to Armstrong’s career is vast, but quite possibly, cleaning up this mess with his family and other loved ones will be an even greater challenge.
While cycling has had an inspirational summer, it is likely that the repercussions of the doping scandal will be felt for a while. But will the sport move forward? Of course! As Pat McQuaid said, “My message to cycling, to our riders, to our sponsors and to our fans today is: cycling has a future. … This is not the first time that cycling has reached a crossroads or that it has had to begin anew and to engage in the painful process of confronting its past. It will do so again with renewed vigour and purpose and its stakeholders and fans can be assured that it will find a new path forward.”
The message from the Lance Armstrong scandal is a clear and inspiring one for parents: acknowledge your children’s strengths and weaknesses and celebrate their effort and improvement; model honesty and act with integrity; take responsibility for (and truly learn from) your mistakes. By modeling your own ability to take responsibility and clean up your messes, you are sending a very powerful message to your children. And when you can teach your children to clean up their own messes (both literal and figurative), you are giving them a real gift.
October 20th, 2011
Descriptive Praise in Action
At The Parent Practice we have many parents who never cease to amaze us with simple ideas that have a long-reaching, positive impact on the relationship they have with their children.
One Mum recently emailed us with a grateful letter that she intended to include with her soon-to-be 8 year old’s birthday card. This wasn’t just any old letter. This was a heartfelt testament (full of descriptive praise) to the year her son had just completed: the milestones he achieved; the new skills he learned; his new friendships; the frustrations and the overcoming of those frustrations; the enhanced relationships with his brothers; even his height and shoe size at the beginning of the year. Some of us have kept baby books where we keep track of all the firsts – teeth, steps and words – but we usually stop by the time our children start school if not before. It is a wonderful idea to continue to keep a record and celebration of their lives.
This Mum is beautifully participative in her son’s life – not overbearing – but present in a way in which she can observe and note down (her son is oblivious until he receives the card) things that may at first seem mundane, but actually are important moments in the life of a child. Here’s an excerpt:
We are grateful that you are growing so independent
in the mornings… always dressed and downstairs by
7am, getting your own breakfast and setting the table
for everyone else. For the pride you take in doing up
your new school tie, and the way you make your own
bed every day without reminders. For accepting the
new ‘no Wii on a school day’ rule with good grace… but
playing it like a madman at the weekends.
We are grateful for your strong will … for never backing down
which is both infuriating and admirable. For your desire to
win and be the best, and how mad it makes you when you
lose. For finding it impossible to say sorry out loud, but then
spontaneously writing a beautiful and sincere letter of apology.
For trying so hard to control your anger and getting frustrated
when it is sometimes the hardest thing to do.
He must start his birthday each year on such a high! This particular year he will be reminded not just that he is deeply loved, but also that he is independent, cooperative, contributing, proud, disciplined, determined and sincere – all qualities that we hope to instill in our children. We love the honesty of the letter: the Mum isn’t wearing rose-coloured glasses, but rather she takes aspects of her child’s behaviour that could infuriate her, and sees them in a positive and caring way – enabling her son to know that he is appreciated for who he is. We imagine that her son is left knowing that being determined, for example, can be a good quality!
We hope that reading this letter doesn’t leave you feeling inadequate or beaten at the competitive game parenting can be but instead inspires you to create something similar for your child. It would be wonderful for them as teenagers and adults to be able to re-read an accurate record of their lives. We like the idea of excerpts being read out (with laughter and tears) one day at a 21st or wedding reception!
So, how do we do it? The Mum who sent us her letter has it down to an art! She jots down notes on the ‘notes’ app on her iPhone and pulls them all together at the end of the year. The writing down seems like it will be the easy part! The more challenging aspect will be taking the time to participate, observe, and truly connect with your children as they grow up. Although it will take time we suspect it will be time you will enjoy and will help you see your child in a truly positive light.
August 17th, 2011
Britons and people across the world have been mesmerised by the riots that took place recently in London and other cities and have been scrabbling for some sort of explanation for what went on, what motivated the rioters and, it seemed to me, searching for someone to blame. I was sorry to see that one of the knee jerk reactions as we try to make sense of this frightening occurrence in our own neighbourhoods was a spate of parent bashing and blaming.
There have been as many theories about the causes of the violence as there were people who took part in it. But there is no one explanation that has convinced me as applying to all who took part. The causes attributed seem to depend on who are identified as the perpetrators. If the rioters were unemployed, uneducated, fatherless, estate-living, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds then commentators have claimed that it is the socio economic climate in which we live currently that has given rise to this spate of violence. But many of the looters were not from this demographic but were middle class, older people in employment. There were teachers, dental nurses and ballerinas who took part. Many of these people were female, educated and in employment. Some of the young were living in stable homes with two caring parents. Many of us will have heard interviews with ‘hoodies’ who claim to have joined in for the fun of it and because they could get away with it.
Whatever the disparate socio economic and ethnic backgrounds of the people taking part in the rioting and looting maybe one thing that unites them is a sense of powerlessness in their lives that compels them to seize control in this way. One youth was quoted as saying “We wanted to show the police we could do what we wanted.” The other uniting feature, as many commentators have mentioned, is the moral vacuum we have witnessed. Whatever the circumstances of their lives, whatever hardships they may be enduring, whatever frustrations or privations, these don’t justify taking the action they did, causing the damage they did, taking the lives they did. So what is missing? Some of the people taking part seemed to just get caught up in the atmosphere of the mob without any predetermined idea of causing violence or stealing. But why did they give way to the thrust of the crowd? Where is the value system that tells a person when to stop and decide not to join the throng? Why wasn’t there an overriding compulsion that made them put the brakes on and think about how their actions impacted on others? How do you get those values? Clearly from one’s up-bringing. Allison Pearson has written in the Telegraph, “Our young people need adults to stop abdicating authority.”
While it is true that we need parents to behave like adults and to be in charge there are wide differences of opinion about what this means. Pearson quoted her neighbour as saying “They need a smacked bottom and to be sent to bed early”. Generally when people say “what that child needs is some discipline” they mean this kind of punitive approach but this is pendulum thinking where we assume that the alternative to this kind of flagrant permissiveness is clamping down hard with punishment. And if we conclude that there are social factors at work here which facilitated the recent lawlessness then we will not be effective in just bringing down sanctions without addressing those social factors.
In any case there is a more effective middle ground involving parents setting and upholding boundaries, taking an interest in and being responsible for their children and being willing to be the parent not the friend. My view is that there is a crisis of parenting when the adults are not in charge, when they don’t know where a 12 year old is, when they have not been able to pass on values about respect for others, when they have not taught compassion and tolerance, when the young people don’t have the communication skills necessary to get what they need without violence, when they don’t have a proper education.
Not all the young people who took part in the violence have been brought up badly. Some of them may have got caught up in the moment and displayed a real lack of judgment in doing so and they need to be shown that there are consequences for that behaviour. Some parents are bravely doing just that. Chelsea Ives, 18 year old and promising athlete, took part in the rioting and was seen on television by her parents who took the courageous step of turning her into the police. And other parents have taken similar steps to teach their children responsibility for their actions.
But where there has been a failure to educate young people in good values and responsibility I think we have to be careful where we lay the blame for that. It is too easy to say what parents should be doing, especially when we’re pointing the finger at another set of parents, not ourselves. We need to take responsibility as a community for what has happened and think holistically about how we can support parents to bring up the next generation better. However difficult I think we need to try to get to the why’s of what happened so we can take effective action rather than just shooting in the dark like tough punishment and bringing in the army. And we need more data before we can analyse accurately what happened. Just as when we’re disciplining our kids at home we need to take time to understand why they did the thing we didn’t want them to do so that we can respond effectively.
The phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ hasn’t had much application in modern Britain but it needs to now. If one good thing comes out of this maybe it will be that in the spirit of the cleaning up that took place after the riots, that sense of taking back control of our communities, we look out for our neighbours more and help each other to bring up good kids. That might be in direct ways by offering to look after a neighbour’s child to give them a break, or being a male ‘uncle’ figure in the life of a fatherless child, or it might be having the courage to tell a teen to take their feet off the seat on the bus. Or maybe our actions will be to lobby government in this time of austerity measures to not make cuts in the vital area of providing parenting support so that parents have the tools to be able to get their kids to school, get them off the streets, give them the values they want to pass on and teach them respect. Nothing will change if we just mutter about the state of moral collapse in our society and point the finger of blame at parents who are not coping.
July 29th, 2011
One of the perks of living in London is the opportunity to attend world-class events. Recently I was lucky enough to be at Wimbledon’s Center Court for the final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic won in 4 sets, and he was the deserving winner. He simply played better tennis on the day.
Athletes can be a tremendous inspiration; providing lessons in how to be at the top of their game and remaining confident, yet also maintaining humility. Rafael Nadal summed it up so beautifully in his speech following his defeat by Djokovic. He said:
“First I would like to congratulate Novak and his team for his victory today and his amazing season. It wasn’t possible [for me] today in this final. I tried my best as always. Today one player played better than me. I will try another time next year.”
Here’s what I like about what he captured in those short sentences:
Apparently one of the things players see before heading on to Center Court is the classic Rudyard Kipling poem If
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same
This is such an important lesson to instill in our children. The ability to win with grace and humility and the ability to lose in the same way. Defeat can lead to (at least) two outcomes: it can shut you down so you no longer want to try; or, you see it as a source of inspiration. Defeat can be the opportunity to take stock with what you have achieved, re-clarify and re-commit to your goals and take some time to refine your skills.
Yesterday’s match demonstrated that, for Nadal, doing your best is not the same as (in that particular match) being the best. While doing your best might not result in a first or second place finish, it will always provide an opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses and see them both as things to learn from and improve upon.
July 01st, 2011
Have you ever had the experience where your child says they are bored and there is nothing to do? Or indeed the situation where a simple family game of cards dissolves into hysteria and tantrums if your child does not win? Simply playing sport or other games can sometimes be fraught with emotion for both parent and child. Encouraging simple creative play from an early age can often be a minefield as parents are bombarded with a n overwhelming array of educational toys – largely electronic, with an amazing range of batteries and buttons. The marketing gurus cleverly stamp a package as “Award Winning Toy” encouraging parents to buy with the implication they will have as a result an “award winning child”. This preconditioning starts early and moves with the development of your child into the more sophisticated area of Nintendo Ds; Playstations and Xbox’s. Electronic toys are largely about children executing tasks and play therefore becomes based on performance and not imagination. The manufacturers may just as well put a health warning on the box saying” creativity and imagination not included in this package!”
Another on going problem for many parents is that as children develop in age, there can be a temptation to fill children’s free time with many organised activities and entertainment often designed to add to their list of accomplishments. Indeed we do live in a culture of organised play, as the pressure to maximize every moment is enormous, especially as time together between parent and child may be compromised. The result can often be children who, when left to their own devices, may not know what to do. We don’t want fun to be seen by our children as commercialised and yet so often this can be the case .
The solutions to the above are so simple as to be overlooked:
In terms of playing competitive games and sports, many life skills are required in order to be successful and enjoy taking part. We need to teach and train our children to:
Set up opportunities to practice the above skills by playing sport and other games. (This also provides opportunities for positive time with your children which contributes to a positive relationship with them, improves their motivation to please and increases their self-esteem.)
And finally when your child returns home from their cricket or rounders match resist the temptation to ask “Did you win?” replacing it first with “Did you enjoy yourself? And then “did you play your best?” or “did you manage to keep your eye on the ball the way you’ve been practicing” or “Did the coach have any good tips?”
November 11th, 2010
80% of parenting is modelling. It’s a really scary thought for most parents that eighty per cent of the teaching we do, eighty percent of the learning our children get in the family, most of what they imbibe and take on as values comes from them watching what we model and copying us! There may be a handful of parents who are relaxed about this having a clean conscience about their language, their attitudes, their manners and other behaviours. But for many of us this is a really pressurising idea. Especially if you consider all the possible areas our children may be subconsciously absorbing values that we didn’t intend to pass on to them.
When my children were little I despaired of them ever learning what I regarded as ‘nice’ table manners because I thought my husband, not me, was such a poor role model in this area. (Lovely as he was and is in many other ways.) But there were so many other areas where I wasn’t remotely aware that I was modelling behaviours. For example what attitudes do we model? When something is hard do we give up? I know if I have an IT issue or I reach the tiniest obstacle with something electronic I’ll wait till my husband can deal with it. (I told you he was nice). What am I teaching my kids – that there are areas that are completely beyond my expertise and I’m not going to try to improve but instead I’ll avoid dealing with those issues?
Still on the subject of attitudes what do you do when you get a parking ticket? (A very common occurrence in Wandsworth where I live.) Do you berate yourself for being such a fool for not putting enough money in the parking meter; do you say Daddy will be so cross that’s the third one this month; do you say don’t tell Daddy? If so what are we modelling for our children about dealing with mistakes? Are we teaching them that mistakes diminish us rather than being an opportunity for learning and should be covered up?
What about language? Have you ever heard your child on the phone sounding exactly like you? When I rang my five year old nephew recently he was very chatty and said “and how’s the family” in tones that sounded just like his mother! These are the positives of course. But how many of us emit an expletive or two in the hearing of our children and then get cross with them for doing the same? How do we handle our feelings? When I’m sad do I mooch around with a hang dog expression listlessly, sighing and finding it hard to get on with life. When I’m angry do I put others down or criticise or resort to sarcasm? What do I do when my self esteem is low? Do I do something to boost it or give up and withdraw? When I’m fed up with my kids do I tell them how rotten they are? If my children are fighting with each other do I smack the one I see as the perpetrator? What does smacking model? Is it telling my children that when they’re adults they too will be able to use their power to hurt but they’re not allowed to hit their brother now? When someone has upset me do I speak rationally to the person concerned or do I bottle up my feelings or explode? Do they see you resolving conflict well? Do they know you’ve made up with your partner after a fight and do they learn how you resolved things?
If you’re feeling a bit sick by now keep reading as it gets better.
If I want my children to develop good social skills what am I modelling around that? Do we all eat together at the table having conversations? Do they see me with my friends? Do they hear me talking positively about friends and family or do they get a litany of complaints? How you talk about your parents is how they’ll talk about you in adulthood!
What about lifestyle? We all know how important it is to encourage our children to eat well and take exercise and get enough sleep but what do they see us doing in these areas? Is your breakfast a cup of strong coffee and do they hear that you were up half the night? Do you exercise with your kids or on your own where there don’t see it? How do you talk to your kids about your own body shape and that of others? Do you moan about your own ‘deficiencies’ or make fun of others?
Do your kids ever see you reading? Do you discuss the contents of your book with them?
And what about the things that will affect them in the future? What do they see your work/life balance as?
I said it would get better. The good news is that as soon as our awareness is raised about these issues we’ve already taken a step forward. We start to think about what we do in front of the children. One of the most useful aspects of the parenting course I took 13 years ago was spending time each week working out what values I wanted to pass on to my children. At The Parent Practice we focus on this a lot.
Sometimes it’s just a case of making our children aware of the good things we’re doing that we want them to learn from such as kindnesses that we wouldn’t normally broadcast but we need to articulate to our children so that they can learn from it. When playing games with children we recommend you articulate your thought processes like this: oh no I’ve drawn a bad card! Never mind. I won’t make a fuss. Maybe I’ll get a good one next hand. Yes you will feel like a dork but your children are learning good lessons from this.
Sometimes of course it means curbing our bad habits or at least being conscious of not parading them in front of the children. Knowing the following facts about smoking (along with all the other ones you already know) may give you a bit extra incentive to give up. Children of parents who smoke:
Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”. Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values. For the record my kids’ table manners are fine now.
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